Ethics and Legal Compliance

Published: Mar 10, 2009

Topics: Workplace Issues       

Note: This the second of a two-part series discussing ethical behavior and training in the workplace. To read the first article, click here.

Ethics - as it applies to business - is being redefined almost daily. Many say ethics simply means doing the right thing, an increasingly complex standard to achieve as global business decisions, cultures, traditions, performance, and legal standards impose different expectations on different people at different times.

With increasingly generous whistleblowing awards and other employment-law protections afforded employees by federal and state legislation and regulations, many employers are putting ethics and compliance training at the top of their lists of things to do because the illegal conduct of just a single employee puts the entire organization at risk.

And these training initiatives aren't limited to the United States. They're global. According to The Legal Knowledge Company (LRN.), large multinational organizations, such as Dow Chemical, General Motors, and Johnson & Johnson, are committing substantial resources to employee ethics training and outreach programs to help ensure that employees have the knowledge and resources they need to do their jobs effectively, within the legal boundaries imposed in various jurisdictions.

What's wrong, what's right. Violating a law is often the first overt indication that an individual or organization is treading on ethical quicksand. In the past, employers have analyzed a questionable situation or behavior and assessed the potential consequences by asking questions like "What's the minimum legal standard with which we must comply? What's the worst that can happen?" Recently, more employers are starting to ask, "Is this ethical?" The answer often is "no," or "it's kind of a gray area." In either case, many organizations have decided to add a strong ethics component to compliance education and training programs. The objective is to help employees learn how to recognize potential conduct that could lead to intentional or unintentional wrongdoing and result in devastating consequences for specific individuals and/or the entire organization. As a result, some of the most common ethics/compliance training topics include:

  • Preventing workplace discrimination, harassment, and violence.
  • Conflict of interest (e.g., releasing company proprietary information, falsifying company records, etc.)
  • Antitrust, securities, and accounting misrepresentations.
  • Bribery, fraud, and theft (including product quality control lapses, identity theft, etc.)
  • Workplace health, safety, and security (including substance abuse and environmental oversights.)

It's no surprise that many ethics dilemmas are directly related to human resources and employment practices. Experts say that while ethics/compliance challenges are unique to every organization, employers must have leaders with impeccable integrity and a dedication to teaching every member of their workforce the significance of ethics in their personal and professional lives.

Training programs. Establishing an ethics program isn't an exact science, particularly as it relates to legal compliance. You need the input, interaction, cooperation, decision-making, and ongoing commitment of many people. It's important to recognize the unique characteristics of your culture. These include things like:

  • Management leadership styles.
  • Customer and vendor relationships and expectations.
  • Personal sensitivities to religion, gender, age, national origin, etc., of all affected individuals and community members.

Once you've clarified the cultural influences affecting your organization, the ERC (Ethics Resource Center) suggests you think about and answer some key questions:

  • Why might good people in this organization do unethical things?
  • What are our organization's values?
  • Have we adequately articulated these values internally and externally?
  • Does our organization have written ethics policies, procedures, or structures?
  • To whom is our organization accountable?
  • What do we mean by success? (i.e., Are we willing to compromise ethical/moral standards to meet business goals?)
  • Is ethics an issue that has the support of leadership in our organization?

"The process of working through these questions individually and with others in your company or organization can be an informative and valuable learning experience. The answers that you arrive at can serve as an excellent foundation in preparation for your coming work in developing an ethics program."